Marlborough, New Zealand. I want to paint it in lights and wave my hands through the air like a banner as I say it with grandiosity. It’s the pinnacle of wine regions in this country… isn’t it?
If we hadn’t worked in the industry here, and were living in Canada as our regular old, wine loving, WSET certified wine fan selves, and we were given the choice to pick one wine region in New Zealand to visit, we would have chosen Marlborough, all day, hands down. I’d bet that’d be the common vote across most wine fans. There’s a simple reason for this, and it’s the same reason why we want to visit Tuscany in Italy, or the Barossa in Aussie, or Mendoza in Argentina. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to New Zealand is like Rioja to Spain, or Zinfandel to California, or Chennin Blanc to South Africa. I have to pay respect to Marlborough for producing something that has grabbed the attention of internationals, because it’s given all other regions the chance to start showcasing that New Zealand is producing some exceptional wines. And if you like Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand really is the country you should be looking to, and Marlborough is the region that it mostly comes from, although I do challenge you to try Hawke’s Bay Sauv, or Central Otago, or any of the other regions as well.
Upon flying into Marlborough in our wee, 9 seater plane, we got to see it from a bird’s eye view.
It is stunningly beautiful, as is most of New Zealand; I noticed though, that it is almost fully planted in vines. There are hardly any orchards, and hardly any trees. There is hardly anything else, actually, because they’re running out of space entirely to plant vines. Sauvignon Blanc production has basically consumed Marlborough.
As we made our way around the region, we learned that there are over 40 Cellar Doors, and a lot of them are for large brands. We went to a few big producers, like Brancott Estate, who planted the first Sauvignon Blanc vines in Marlborough in 1979, and Giesen.
We visited some smaller ones, like No.1 Family Estate, a solely Methode Traditionnelle producer that is 12/13th generation from France and does exceptional champagne-style wines. We loved everything at No.1 Family Estate.
We were also guests of Hans Herzog (Swiss family making very natural style wines), Framingham (producing delicious, aromatic wines), and Fromm (using organic growing and dry farming). We were impressed with the Rieslings at Framingham, Fromm’s Pinot Noir, and the Cellar Door Exclusive Zweigelt at Brancott.
We saw the industrial side of Blenheim when we went for a tour of our sister winery, Brancott.
It’s surrounded by several other wineries that all have tanks and presses of sizes so large I could hardly wrap my mind around them. In knowing how large our presses are, I was whispering to my friend along the tour, “did she just say it has that much capacity? Did I hear that number right?”
I took a journalist for a tour/interview at work the other day, and she asked me, “if travellers only had time/money to visit one wine region in New Zealand, why should they pick yours? Why Hawke’s Bay?” I had to stop and think for a moment before I responded, because where do I even start? My answer of “obviously because it’s the best,” wouldn’t have been appropriate for a journal article, so I went into a bit more depth. I could write an entire article on just this, but I’ll try to sum up my passion for Hawke’s Bay into a single paragraph.
Hawke’s Bay, although it is the second largest wine region in New Zealand, only exports around 10% of the wine leaving the country; this means we are largely boutique and small production, ensuring more interesting wines, made by real people who strive for wines of quality. We have an extremely diverse array of over 25 different microclimates created by our soils, mountain ranges, Mediterranean climate and sea breezes. This allows us to grow a wide selection of varietals and make wines of all kinds, so like I told the journalist, if you like Bubbles, we have it, Rosé, we have it, all kinds of white wine, we have it, light to heavy red wine, we have it. We’re the only region that does it all. With over 38 Cellar Doors, there’s plenty to try, and we have so much here in addition to the exceptional wine, like orchards, capes, walks, beaches, harbours, museums, history, culture, over 2000 sunshine hours per season, and a great restaurant scene, to name a few.
As I’ve travelled to wine regions and gotten to sample local wines, I’ve noticed there are amazing wines in almost every region that are not mainstream; however, as a traveller I was mostly there to try as many producers and styles of the specific varietals I knew the places for. Since working in the industry in this country, I’ve had the opportunity to change my focus. I’ve seen first hand that there is infinitely more to a country’s wine production than what’s exported. Yes, infinitely more.
When we went back to Canada last year, we were excited to take a browse of the New Zealand isle and see what was available to our friends and families. We were disheartened to find so many mass production labels, that our wine region of New Zealand is so poorly represented, and that most regions here aren’t represented at all. Many of the labels we found aren’t real wineries. They’re brand labels made specifically for export, and although are sometimes decent examples of characters a wine from that area may exhibit, it would be hard to say they’re high quality wines. When people send me photos of Hawke’s Bay wines they’ve found and ask if we’ve been to their Cellar Door, I’m thinking, “no, that’s not a real place, but I drive past the factory where it’s made sometimes…” There is a market for that, yes, but it’s sad to see that those labels seemed to be all that was available. That being said, we really don’t have many wine factories here in the Bay to produce large enough quantities for export at cheap enough prices, unlike Marlborough.
It got me thinking about how many of the other countries of the world are this poorly represented.
What are we missing out on that’s exceptional?
Likely all countries are sending mostly or maybe exclusively mass production wines from only their widely known regions, of only their popular varietals overseas, because that’s what sells. Wine is a business, just like any other, and sales is the biggest thing that matters.
Make wine people will buy. That’s the goal.
The average consumer isn’t buying wine to appreciate the terroir, and to try something different and experience sense of place and be part of the story the weather told that year. They’re looking for an alcoholic beverage with good value, and taste consistency across vintages. To do this, you need multiple recieval bins, huge presses, huge tanks, and huge everything else too, along with some winemaking tricks. Your vintage is just as long as everyone else’s and you’ve got to make the volume happen in the same short 6 weeks, hence the larger, “factory” looking places we saw in the South.
I’ve got to say that in visiting Marlborough, I found there were lots of really nice, interesting wines, that are of quality. Some of what were my favourite wines really surprised me, because they were at a big producer’s tasting room, not the place I expected to have anything interesting. I really enjoyed doing single vineyard comparisons of two of Geisen’s Sauvignon Blancs, and three of their Pinot Noirs; I loved smelling and tasting the expression of the terroir of each vineyard. It was refreshing to see that side of the industry does exist, even in Marlborough, and even with Sauvignon Blanc, although it is a small part down there. This goes to show that even the big producers can do small production stuff that is interesting; however, most of it’s sold locally, so you’ll only find it if you actually go visit the region.
Visiting Marlborough as a wine enthusiast, and as an industry person, was worth it. Despite mixed opinions in the industry on the region and its famous wine, I believe every New Zealand industry person should experience it for themselves. I want to go back again with my husband so he can understand it personally, and I’d love to visit more of the places I unfortunately missed on this last trip. Marlborough is beautiful, iconic for the country, and wines of quality can be found at several wineries. And if you only drink Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, you’ll definitely love Marlborough.
I do challenge you though, if you’re visiting this gorgeous country to experience some interesting and quality made wines, please keep in mind that there’s so much more to New Zealand outside the borders of our famous wine region. Take the time to explore the other regions and varietals if you really want to know what this country can do. Even within Marlborough, there’s so much more than just Sauv. There are some beautiful aromatic varietals and Chardonnays, and Pinot Noirs coming out of the region, and there are great small producers making sustainable and unique Marlborough wines. Although our identity to the world is largely represented by Marlborough Sauv, and that is a part of who we are, we have a much deeper wine identity, and I suspect many other countries are the same.
On a fun, side note, Marlborough Pinot Noir is just as good for breakfast as Central Otago Pinot. Pinot Noir as a breakfast wine is surprisingly great!
Now that I’ve seen our most iconic region, I’ve been asked if I wish I had chosen to live and work in Marlborough instead of Hawke’s Bay.
Well, you read the article.
Not for one millisecond.